An electric sea of gold and blue, Golden State fans breathed life into the Warriors. All Star and Finals MVP Kevin Durant admitted the energy helped the team exhibit a defensive performance no one had seen from them the entirety of the 82-game regular season:
“It was amazing, it was definitely loud in there all day. Fans were out and really excited for playoff basketball you could tell and we fed off of it as well. We’re going to need them to continue to be loud the rest of the series because we really enjoy that and we really feed off of it and you can tell when guys came in, they felt the support.”
From the opening tip the Warriors resembled the team the NBA world yearned for all season. For Golden State, the beginning of the playoffs marked the true beginning of their season, a time where they finally seemed to have a true purpose to play, and this was made glaringly apparent from every active player on the floor.
Draymond Green accredited this to the team finally going back to the foundation that has continuously made the Warriors a force with which to be reckoned:
“I think just coming out with a defensive mindset, I think one of the things we’ve talked about the last couple days is just reestablishing that. On that side of the starting lineup, being able to switch so many things also has been a staple of our defense for years. We’ve kind of gotten away from it this season a little bit, but to get back to that tonight made a big difference.”
Their starting lineup looked slightly different from the last time they faced the Spurs. Notably missing was Stephen Curry, who Warriors PR announced was recovering in a timely manner from his MCL strain and would be further reevaluated in one week. Many expected head coach Steve Kerr to replace the former MVP with rookie Quinn Cook due to his incredible play down the stretch of the regular season, a performance that persuaded the Warriors to add Cook to their roster, but Kerr once again threw everyone for a loop, starting veteran Andre Iguodala.
The move, he said, was defensively motivated:
“I just wanted to put our best defensive lineup on the floor from the beginning. I think the whole point of these games here early in the series is to reestablish our defense. Our defense has been subpar. You can’t win in this league in the playoffs unless you defend. We defended tonight and went with our best defensive group.”
Once again, the head coach’s strategic role reversal worked to the benefit of Golden State. Though Iguodala only contributed three points with one made 3-pointer, he managed 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 block in his 23 minutes of play, a feat teammate Klay Thompson said proved Iguodala’s versatility:
“He can literally do everything, whether it’s get the ball off the board and beat the fast break or knock down an open three. He was huge for us tonight, he only took four shots, but his intangibles and his rebounding as well as playmaking were great.”
McGee was the catalyst both defensively and, more surprisingly, on the offensive end early on leading the team in scoring for the majority of the first quarter before ending the game with 15 points — fewer only than Durant and Klay Thompson among the Warriors. McGee drew a correlation between getting started early on the defensive end and the momentum it was able to give him and his team:
“The Warriors have always been great on defense and always been the top five on defense, at least in these championship runs, so when we play good defense, that sparks our offense for sure. When I get a blocked shot it gives me a little boost to run up and down the floor, maybe get a lob or go and get an offensive rebound. I really work off energy, so I just try to keep my energy up.”
As an entire unit, the Warriors followed the emotional leadership of their starting center. Golden State out-rebounded the Spurs 51 to 30, with Green and Durant heading up the pack with 8 apiece, and out-blocked San Antonio 6 to 4.
Though the spark in defensive effort was welcomed, the Warriors’ offensive fervor was undeniable. Finishing with a team shooting percentage of 54.3 — to the Spurs’ 40 — Golden State featured five players to score 10 or more, including 11 off the bench from Shaun Livingston and 12 from Green.
Durant finished strong with 24, but the leading scorer was Thompson, who was an efficient 11-of-13 after taking just one shot in the first quarter and scoring just nine points before halftime. Though he made fewer shots than expected, especially with fellow splash brother benched, Thompson said his ability to not worry about stats or care about how many shots he takes ultimately makes him more efficient:
“If we win by 21 every game and I get 10 shots, or 4 shots, who cares.”
With the Spurs missing Kawhi Leonard, who has been out since January and was not present on the bench, Rudy Gay (15 points) and LaMarcus Aldridge (14) offensively attempted to shoulder the load for San Antonio. But the duo was no match for the depth of Warriors.
In the end, the Warriors comprehensively proved why they are the ultimate postseason team to beat. If there were any doubt as to the effort, energy or potential of the Warriors to push ahead toward their third NBA Finals in three years, they made sure to quickly snuff that out heading into game two on Monday night.
“We’re a Championship ball club. We know what it takes this time of year to win. We want to get back to that regardless of what everyone is saying: ‘The Warriors have lost it, they aren’t together, they can’t win without Steph.’ Blah, blah,blah. We know what we’re capable of. There has been games we’ve won without Steph, same as with Kevin, myself. We’ve won games without Klay. We’ve won games without our head coach. So we’re primed for this.”